By Mark Maxwell
The Mount Carmel Caravan celebrated their most recent state championship at a pep rally on Wednesday after becoming the first football team in state history to win a title in four different classes (5A-8A).
16 football teams showed up at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb last weekend, prepared to compete for an Illinois state championship. Only one of those teams managed to shut out their opponent: the Mount Carmel Caravan. Regarded by many as the top defensive squad in the state, the physical Caravan defensive unit forced a Lake Zurich fumble twice in the opening quarter of the Class 7A state championship game on their way to a 30-0 victory.
“We had the determination and the firepower,” said senior defensive lineman and 2014 Michigan State commit, Enoch Smith, Jr. “No one could stop us. I felt as if we were the only team that could've stopped us.”
Senior running back Matt Domer followed Caravan blockers into the end zone after both takeaways, leading the Caravan to an early 14-0 advantage. The fast start put them on the right track for legendary coach Frank Lenti to claim his 11th state title in the last 28 seasons.
But where does this Caravan team rank in comparison to all the other championship teams?
“I knew that [Lake Zurich] had a very good defense, but I felt our defense was a little stouter than theirs,” Lenti said. “I felt that as long as we didn't turn the ball over on their side of the 50 [yard line], they were going to have a tough time scoring. Everybody wants to talk about, 'Is this the best defense we've ever had?' And it might be, but I would have to sit down and reflect on some of the other great defenses we've had. But without a doubt, this one is going to be in the top two or three any way you look at it.”
After winning a championship, coaches at all levels often fall victim to the temptation to rattle off tired clichés about getting right back to work, opting not to waste time on celebration. Instead, Lenti selected to take a road less traveled, choosing to revel in the significant accomplishments of the season with his fellow coaches and players.
“We're going to celebrate and enjoy it for a while,” Lenti said. “Our next group of kids, they won't do any weightlifting or any offseason stuff until the beginning of February. I'm a big believer in it's better to underdo it than overdo it. We're not a 24/7, 12 month-a-year football program. We never have been. During the season, our kids and players always get at least one day a week off.”
Lenti employs a lighter offseason training routine than most high school coaches. It may seem unconventional, but it’s hard to argue with his results. Lenti has guided Mount Carmel to a 339-60 record over a span of 30 years, coaching players like Donovan McNabb, Simeon Rice and Jordan Lynch.
“You're not going to win any championships in games one, two or three,” Lenti said. “You win your championships at the back end of the season, not the front end. It's also why we don't put our kids in full equipment during the summer. We don't use the total 25 days. (The IHSA allows teams to hold up to 25 summer practices during the offseason). I want kids fresh and ready to play football when it comes time to be a football player.”
Senior offensive lineman Nate Oquendo grew very close to Lenti during his high school football playing days, calling Lenti one of his best friends.
“[Coach Lenti’s] legacy is probably going to be one of the best coaches of all time going down in my book,” Oquendo said. “He's done something a lot of people haven't done. He always has us prepared. They're just using this football gig as a tool to prepare us for life. He wants us to grow as men.”
Lenti, a coach who has never once ended a season with a losing record, has instilled a rich tradition of winning during his days at Mount Carmel. His players come out each year highly motivated and they expect to win. However, this year, the motivation to win came from another source.
At the start of the season, the players learned that their sophomore coach and Golden Apple award winning physics teacher Curt Ehrenstrom had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Unable to attend games while receiving treatment, Ehrenstrom listened to the Caravan games on the radio. The players dedicated their entire season to “Coach E.”
“Coach E, he was a big factor in our success,” said Domer. “He helped out a lot. He was just like another brother to us who went down. He got a little sick so we know that with Mount Carmel being a special place in his heart, if we stepped up and played great for him, it could do all the little things to help him feel better.”
“We dedicated everything we did this season to [coach Curt Ehrenstrom],” said Smith, Jr. “Every time we did a gasser, right when our coaches blew the whistle, we would say 'coach E' so we could let everyone know on the team that he's fighting for his life and we're just fighting to finish our gasser. So we would build up a little bit of motivation. After we beat Edwardsville in the semifinals, we gave his family the game ball and dedicated that to him. Before we came onto the field at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, we all said, 'One, two three, coach E' and we all ran out to the field so we all could be playing for him.”
Senior wide receiver and cornerback Christian Searles hauled in the first receiving touchdown of the title game from his quarterback, Marko Boricich. Searles has talked with a few Ivy League schools about the opportunity to play football at the collegiate level. Regardless of where his college career takes him, he knows that his time at Mount Carmel won’t ever be duplicated.
“It means a lot to know that I was a part of something so special and that I got a chance to contribute to something so special,” Searles said. “I'll remember this probably as long as I live.”